‘I couldn’t fix myself’: Bishop Conley opens up about mental health recovery

Catholic News Agency

By Mary Farrow/Catholic News Agency

In December 2019, Bishop James Conley of the Diocese of Lincoln announced he was going on a medical leave of absence.

Citing diagnoses of depression and anxiety, as well as chronic insomnia and debilitating tinnitus (a constant ringing of the ears), the bishop said in a public statement that he would be receiving psychological as well as medical treatment.

It had taken him months to get to a point where he realized he needed help.

“It really goes back to the summer of 2018, so, long before I finally got to the point where I asked for some time off,” Conley told CNA.

“There were the difficulties in the Church with regard to the misconduct of priests…(including) here in my diocese,” he said. That summer was also when the McCarrick scandal broke, and when the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report came out.

Besides abuse scandals, Conley also had to close some diocesan schools that had been “running in the red for a number of years. And that’s always a difficult decision to make. It was the right decision, but it was a hard decision.”

There was also a priest of the diocese, younger than Conley, who died around that time.  “There were a number of other things that kind of mounted,” Conley said. “I think that started it.”

As the problems mounted, Conley felt personally responsible for them all, as a bishop and as someone who cared about the people in his diocese.

“I (felt I) was responsible for all of this and that I had to try to fix it myself instead of surrendering to God,” he said.

But the physical and mental symptoms started compounding. He couldn’t sleep. He started losing interest in things he had once enjoyed. A constant ringing began in his ears. He felt overwhelmed.

“I used to tell people that great prayer that Saint John XXIII supposedly would say at night during the Second Vatican Council: ‘Lord, it’s your Church. I’m going to bed.’ And I wasn’t able to take my own advice,” he said. “I just was getting ground down.”

Conley said that while he never was tempted to use unhealthy coping mechanisms, like drugs or alcohol, he was worried what would happen if he continued to feel so anxious and overwhelmed.

In the spring of 2019, Conley went to Mayo Clinic and was diagnosed with anxiety and depression. He said he tried to rest, worry less, and go to counseling while maintaining his duties as a bishop, but it wasn’t working.

“I was trying to fix myself and as time went on, I realized that I couldn’t fix myself while I was still on the job, so to speak.”

Conley sought the counsel of some of his friends, including Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City; Bishop James Wall of Gallup, New Mexico; Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix; and Archbishop George Lucas of Omaha.

With the help of these friends, Conley presented his case before the U.S. Nuncio, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, during a private meeting at the November 2019 assembly of the U.S. bishops’ conference.

“And the nuncio said, ‘Well, I think you need some time off to get some professional help.’”

Until then, Conley had not even considered that a leave of absence was possible for a bishop.

“I was called by God to be a successor of the Apostles, we don’t have any record of the Apostles taking time off,” Conley said. “So I just didn’t think that a bishop could do that. And that somehow, that would be a sign of weakness or failure, or not being able to fulfill (my) duties. When in reality, we are body and soul. Grace builds upon nature. And so we need to take care of our physical and mental wellbeing in order to be good at whatever we’re doing.”

Conley said Pierre was very supportive, and told him to obtain a doctor’s note that could be sent along with the request to Pope Francis, since bishops are under obedience to the Holy Father.

By December 2019, Conley’s leave had been approved. On December 13, he announced the leave to his diocese. In the announcement, Conley said he had been diagnosed with depression and anxiety, and that he was taking a mental health leave.

“I wanted to be honest, and I wanted to be truthful about why I was leaving. If I’m going to leave, that’s a big deal. And I didn’t want to keep that a secret and leave it to people to speculate what (the reason for leaving) was,” he said.

Conley said he was overwhelmed by the positive and supportive response.

“I received a lot of letters and cards and notes, not only from people who I knew and who were writing to support me, but from people I didn’t even know, who themselves had struggled with some mental health issue, or (a relative) or some friend of theirs had,” he said.

“And they were so grateful to me for being so open about it and transparent. They thanked me for talking about it, because of the stigma that’s surrounding mental illness,” he said. “And that was helpful for me, comforting for me to know that I wasn’t the only one, and that I wasn’t alone in this.”

Shortly after the announcement, Conley left to stay in Phoenix, where he was able to receive treatment from a psychologist, a psychiatrist, and medical doctors, as well as spiritual direction.

Three months later, the rest of the world went on a sort of leave of absence as well, as the coronavirus pandemic caused national and global shutdowns. It made Conley’s recovery more difficult, he said.

“That didn’t help…the isolation, when I was down in Phoenix,” he said. He had a few good friends, particularly a young family, who were very helpful, he added. The couple were both former students of his at the University of Dallas, and they now have five kids, and would frequently invite Conley to their house.

“But it was just a strain, then, to see how the whole pandemic played out,” Conley said.

Conley said it was important that he had Catholic counselors and doctors to work with throughout his treatment, so that they were all on the same page about how his faith was a part of his recovery.

During recovery, Conley said he learned to re-frame his thinking, and to more fully trust God, as well as his staff and collaborators, with the responsibilities of a bishop. He re-learned the importance of sleep, healthy eating, exercise, and recreation as part of a well-balanced life.

“Because we’re body and soul that we need balance and we need a certain order in our life to help us stay healthy,” he said.

There can sometimes be a stigma against mental illness and treatment among some Christian circles, where the illness is seen as a sign of spiritual weakness that can be cured with more prayer.

But Conley said seeking help – including psychological, spiritual, and mental recovery – is an act of surrender to the will of God.

“One Scripture passage that jumps out is John 15, ‘Apart from the Lord, you can do nothing.’ And that’s what I think can lead to mental illnesses, that you think it’s all up to you, that you have to solve all the problems in your life or in the world,” Conley said.

He said he has been so open with his experience because he wants to encourage others “to not hesitate to get help, when you need it. Don’t be embarrassed, or don’t feel like you’re weak or something, if you try to get help,” he said.

On Thursday, the Diocese of Lincoln announced that Conley would be returning from his leave of absence and resuming his duties on November 13, after 11 months of leave and recovery.

Conley said he is looking forward to being back with the people of the diocese, to continue helping foster vocations, and to promote Catholic education. He said he is excited about a new pro-life crisis pregnancy center being built across the street from the Planned Parenthood in Lincoln. He added that he’s also going to start thinking about evangelization post-COVID, because he fears that the Church may have lost some people from the pews during the lockdowns and extended dispensations.

But he’s going to ease back in, and he’s going to try to keep the things he learned in recovery at the forefront of his mind.

“I’m not going to hit the ground running, I’m hitting the ground walking,” he said.

He said he’s going to pace himself, and make sure he is exercising and getting good sleep and taking time to do things he enjoys. 

“You don’t live to work, you need to work to live. And some people, especially in America today, we have this mentality of pragmatism or utilitarianism, where you’re working 18 hours a day…that’s no way to live life.”

He added that he would encourage anyone struggling, particularly due to the isolation of the ongoing pandemic, to reach out and get help.

“Don’t hesitate to seek help. And especially, if you’re feeling anxious or overwhelmed. Being disconnected really is a source of pain. We’re meant to be in community and so I would say that if people are feeling disconnected in any way that they reach out and get help.”

“You’re not alone,” he added. “There are people out there that can help.”

Featured image: Bishop James D. Conley speaks at the 2017 Regional Catholic Classical Schools Conference at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Parish on July 5, 2017, in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)

COMING UP: ‘I have seen the Lord’: St. Vincent de Paul’s new adoration chapel honors St. Mary Magdelene’s witness

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

“I have seen the Lord.” (John 20:18). 

One couple from St. Vincent de Paul parish took these words to heart with urgency last year during the pandemic and decided to build a Eucharistic Adoration chapel for their fellow faithful to be in the Lord’s presence themselves. 

Mike and Shari Sullivan donated design and construction of the new Eucharistic Adoration Chapel of St. Mary Magdalene adjacent to their parish church to make a space for prayer and adoration that they felt needed to be reinstated, especially during the difficult days of COVID-19. 

The chapel was completed this spring and dedicated during Divine Mercy weekend with a special blessing from Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila. 

“It was invigorating to have the archbishop bless the chapel,” Mike said. “The church has been buzzing.” 

Mike has been a Catholic and a member of St. Vincent de Paul since his baptism, which he jokes was around the time the cornerstone was placed in 1951. The Sullivans’ five children all attended the attached school and had their sacraments completed at St. Vincent de Paul too. 

Archbishop Samuel Aquila dedicated the St. Mary Magdalene adoration chapel with a prayer and blessing at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church on April 9, 2021, in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

The 26-by 40-foot chapel is a gift to fellow parishioners of a church that has meant so much to their family for decades, and to all who want to participate in prayer and adoration. 

The architect and contractor are both Catholic, which helped in the design of Catholic structure and the construction crew broke ground in mid-December. The Sullivans wanted to reclaim any Catholic artifacts or structural pieces they could for the new chapel. Some of the most striking features of the chapel are the six stained glass windows Mike was able to secure from a demolished church in New York. 

The windows were created by Franz Xaver Zettler who was among a handful of artists known for the Munich style of stained glass from the 19th century.  The Munich style is accomplished by painting detailed pictures on large pieces of glass unlike other stained-glass methods, which use smaller pieces of colored glass to make an image. 

The two primary stained-glass windows depict St. Augustine and St. Mary Magdalene, the chapel’s namesake, and they frame either side of the altar which holds the tabernacle and monstrance — both reused from St.  Vincent De Paul church.  

The Sullivans wanted to design a cloistered feel for the space and included the traditional grill and archway that opens into the pews and kneelers with woodwork from St. Meinrad Archabbey in southern Indiana. 

The chapel was generously donated by Mike and Shari Sullivan. The stained glass windows, which depict St. Augustine and St. Mary Magdalene, were created by Franz Xaver Zettler, who was among a handful of artists known for the Munich style of stained glass from the 19th century. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

Shari is a convert to Catholicism and didn’t grow up with the practice of Eucharistic adoration, but St. Vincent de Paul pastor Father John Hilton told her to watch how adoration will transform the parish. She said she knows it will, because of what regular Eucharistic adoration has done for her personally. 

The Sullivans are excited that the teachers at St. Vincent de Paul school plan to bring their classes to the warm and inviting chapel to learn about the practice of adoration and reflect on the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. 

The words of St. Mary Magdalene “I have seen the Lord,” have become the motto of the chapel, Mike said, and they are emblazoned on a brass plaque to remind those who enter the holy space of Christ’s presence and the personal transformation offered to those inside.

The St. Vincent de Paul  Church and The Eucharistic Chapel of St. Mary Magdalene is located at 2375 E. Arizona Ave. Denver 80210 on the corner of Arizona and Josephine Street. The chapel is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day. Visit https://saintvincents.org/adorationchapel1 for more information about the chapel and to look for updates on expanded hours as they occur.